Columns > Published on June 13th, 2013

The Blagger's Guide to Kathy Acker

To blag (v): to sound like you know what you’re talking about when you don’t.

The Blagger’s Guide to Literature (n): an invaluable resource for those who wish to blag about books without actually reading them.

Just the facts ma’am

It says something about Acker that even the facts are hard to pin down. Depending on whom you believe Acker was born in 1944, 1947 or 1948. There’s more consensus about her family background which was affluent, New York and Jewish. Her father, Donald Lehman, deserted her mother while she was pregnant. Karen (as she was then called) grew up in material comfort but emotional poverty (or so she claimed) in New York’s Upper East Side.

From nice Jewish girl to punk princess and literary terrorist. How did that happen?

By meeting all the wrong people. Young Karen Lehman started hanging out with underground film makers and experimental poets. This was in the early 1960s, just at the point when Warhol founded The Factory and Allen Ginsberg was beginning to think about taking off his clothes. The scent of cultural rebellion was everywhere. By age nineteen, Karen had become Kathy, had married and divorced – which is where she picked up the surname Acker – and was studying at Brandeis under renowned New Marxist, Herbert Marcuse.

When Marcuse departed Boston for San Francisco, Acker went with him as his teaching assistant, continuing to study and eventually graduating with a degree in Classics. San Francisco put the finishing touches on what New York had begun. Acker became involved in the nascent feminist movement and learned about conceptualism from the poet David Antin.

Whoa cowboy! What on earth is conceptualism?

A good question. For blagging purposes, what you need to know is that conceptualism is not about using art to represent a version of the world. It’s about using art to evoke an emotional response, preferably by combining a variety of techniques and/or disciplines.

Are we talking about multimedia installations here?

We certainly are. And performance art, experimental music and ‘anti-art’ networks such as the Fluxus movement.

Acker was exposed to and involved in all of this. Inspired by the work of Burroughs, she began to use these ideas in writing projects. When she became short of funds, she moved back to New York to work and became involved in the sex industry, as a stripper and porn actress.

Oh oh. Not exactly living the dream then?

More like gathering material. Acker scented hypocrisy in the hippie movement, which promoted the idea of free love, but could be highly maiden auntish about issues like prostitution and homosexuality. Her way of exploring conceptualism was to become highly interested in sex, or more specifically, the intersection between sex, language and politics.

Not sure I follow…

That’s the point of blagging – you don’t have to.

Acker started to apply her ideas to her work. Most conceptual writers were poets, but apart from the self-published volume Politics, Acker stuck to prose. She started to explore various techniques – combining porn with passages stolen from Dickens and Proust, having her characters change gender and identity, having real characters drift in an out of the action and interspersing the text with diary entries and drawings.

Small presses started to pick up on her work and the burgeoning punk scene required literary expression. Acker developed a reputation, won a Pushcart Prize for one of her short stories and decided to see what would happen if she appropriated not just a few passages from other writers but a whole work of literature.

What did happen?

Great Expectations was the result – Acker’s reimagining of the Dickens classic as something else entirely. Porn, whores, gender-shifting narrators: Charles would have spun in his grave, which was probably the point. While no one who read it claimed to understand it, Great Expectations perfectly captured the boundary-breaking spirit of the New York late 70s-early 80s New Wave scene.

With her tattoos, shaved head and piercings, Acker fit right in to punk’s image of itself. She moved to London, capital of punk, where the media was busy convulsing itself over images of Our Dear Queen Elizabeth with a safety pin through her nose. Acker had now hit her stride. In 1984 she managed to secure a deal for her next work with Picador, a main-stream publisher.

Wait! Blood and Guts in High School – right?

Well done, grasshopper. This was indeed BaGiHS, which used all of Acker’s favorite techniques – porn, violence, illustrations, plagiarized texts and a lack of any discernible plot. Critics were polarized depending on whether they embraced punk or viewed it as proof of the approaching Apocalypse.

But what is it about? I need to know in case someone asks…

Acker’s books are never really ‘about’ anything, but she did try to help the reader by focusing the narrative on the sexual adventures of a ten year old girl. There’s a bakery, a Persian slave trader and a trip to Alexandria with Jean Genet. Some of the material is probably autobiographical and because Janey, the protagonist, has an incestuous relationship with her father, commentators were for a while all in a froth about whether Acker herself was abused, which helped to further enhance the book’s prurient appeal.

Blood and Guts in High School catapulted Acker from the sidelines to the mainstream. Feminists pounced on it as support for the then-popular ‘all penetrative sex is rape’ manifesto. Intellectuals pontificated about post-structuralism. Radicals saw it as biting social commentary.

Acker, to her credit, refused to capitalize, although the opportunity to become the received wisdom on all matters countercultural did present itself. She just carried on being Acker, parrying questions about her work with references to her weird Jewish sense of humor. She continued to explore, never seeming to be too bothered about whether people liked/appreciated/understood what she did.

She sounds cool

She was – one of the very few authors not to buy into her own hype. She did take advantage of the commissions which inevitably came her way (including an interview with the Spice Girls for the Guardian newspaper) and took on various visiting professorships, but never alighted in one place long enough to become a fixture. She died from breast cancer in 1997 at the age of 54/50/49.

The Blag Facts

  1. Always a fan of body art, Acker described in one of her last interviews how her recent labia piercing gave her random orgasms during various public functions.
  2. Acker became friends with Neil Gaiman when they met at a literary party. She once invited him to spend ten days with her at William Burroughs’ farm in Kansas, an offer which Gaiman, after careful consideration, declined.
  3. Best Acker quote: ‘let’s compare a pencil to a vagina.’

About the author

Cath Murphy is Review Editor at and cohost of the Unprintable podcast. Together with the fabulous Eve Harvey she also talks about slightly naughty stuff at the Domestic Hell blog and podcast.

Three words to describe Cath: mature, irresponsible, contradictory, unreliable...oh...that's four.

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